In addition to representing the Christian and Southern American identities seen in most of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “Good Country People” touches on the roles of the intellect and intellectualism, as well as physical challenges in developing the individual identity. The central character is emotionally scarred by a hunting accident that has left her with one leg. This disfigurement causes her to retreat from the physical world into the world of the intellect. She was named Joy by her appropriately named mother, Mrs. Hopewell, a rather simplistic optimist who confronts adversity simply by hoping for the best. This philosophy of cheer irritates Joy, who retaliates by legally changing her name to the ugliest one she can think of: Hulga.
While the story does hint at the way various people react to the physically challenged, O’Connor’s interest in Hulga/Joy’s identity seems to lie in a different direction. The deliberate ugliness in her choice of a name mirrors the deliberate ugliness of her personality. Hulga is deliberately as rude as possible to her mother because of Hulga’s disgust for her mother’s sweetness-and-light simplicity. O’Connor reveals Mrs. Hopewell’s insensitivity to Hulga’s bitterness at her maiming, but greater thematic importance is placed on the disfigurement as an analogue for a spiritual leglessness. Moral ugliness, O’Connor’s Catholic belief instructs, is always the result of the brokenness of human nature. Humanity was crippled in the Fall, Adam and Eve’s first sin.
This Christian orthodoxy is not Hulga’s belief at all. Her self-made identity is of an elite intellectual, rising above such superstition. Christian morality, in the story, seems at first to be represented in the story by a travelling Bible salesman named Manley Pointer. To some extent, the plot he engenders is an old joke: He is a traveling salesman trying to seduce the daughter. Seduce her he does, but not by appealing to her emotions—Hulga denies that she has any. Rather, he sees her true weakness: intellectual pride. Hulga’s self-created identity is that of the great intellect (she holds a Ph.D. in philosophy) among country bumpkins, and by pretending to succumb to Manley’s bumbling professions of love, she can prove that there is no such thing. She intends to demonstrate that what is called “love” is simply a hypocritical disguise for lust. Love, she thinks, is as illusory as Christianity, the other myth in which Manley seems to believe.
Yet the joke is on her. Manley, it turns out, is not the Christian he claims to be: He is a con artist who uses Hulga’s pride to attempt to win from her not only sexual favors but also her prosthetic leg. Her reactions to his attentions reveal her hypocrisy: She is outraged, like a traditional belle whom Hulga would hold in contempt, at his frank sexual proposition. She also is mentally bested by the young man. The story ends with Manley disappearing in the distance with Hulga’s prosthetic leg, leaving her to question her presuppositions about her own identity while she awaits an embarrassing rescue in a hay loft.
Mrs. Hopewell, a widowed farm owner, is in the practice of hiring tenant farm families to assist her in maintaining the farm. Her current helpers, the Freemans, are busybodies, but they are reliable and serve her better than the previous tenants. Mrs. Hopewell regards Mrs. Freeman and her family as “good country people” and is fond of uttering homespun maxims such as “Nothing is perfect” or “That is life!” and being reassured by Mrs. Freeman’s frequent rejoinder, “I always said so myself.”
The backward, unsophisticated ways of the Freemans, however, only perturb Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, Hulga, who changed her name from Joy when she left home to attend college. Having earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, Hulga is a troubled, introverted young woman; she lost her leg in a childhood hunting accident and has not been “normal” since. She is a source of embarrassment to her mother, who “was at a complete loss” in explaining her daughter’s ambitions. One could say “my daughter is a nurse or a school teacher or a chemical engineer,” but she could not say “my daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that “ended with the Greeks and Romans.” With an artificial leg and a heart condition, Hulga seems destined for a quiet life spent irritating her mother and the workers surrounding her.
One afternoon, however, something upsets the ecology of the household. Manley Pointer, who announces himself as an itinerant Bible salesperson interested in “Chrustian” (sic) service, arrives at the door and engages Mrs. Hopewell in a discussion of salvation and Bible truth. At first merely polite to the young man, Mrs. Hopewell is quickly charmed by his “salt of the earth,” simple country ways, and invites him for supper. Hulga is appalled by Pointer but sees his visit as an opportunity to enlighten a woefully naïve country boy about the ways of the world. After supper he walks her to the front gate and convinces her to meet him for a walk at ten o’clock the next morning.
Hulga lies awake the night before imagining that she will seduce this innocent, redeeming him from both his religious convictions and his moral inhibitions. When she sneaks off to meet him the next day, she is startled by his unusually aggressive temperament when he asks how her wooden leg is joined to the rest of her torso. Initially disturbed but strangely attracted to Pointer’s naïveté, she allows him to kiss her. She suggests that they head toward the barn, imagining herself as the aggressor and seducer. Here she turns their conversation to her philosophical opinions about life and eternal destinies, announcing that she is one of those people who have “taken off their blindfolds and see that there is nothing to see.”
After a series of passionate kisses, Pointer begs Hulga to tell him that she loves him. At first she balks, with an elaborate discussion of what she means by the word “love,” but finally relents. He asks her to prove her love by letting him remove her wooden leg. Suddenly aware that she is not with the naïve, unsophisticated rube she imagined, she is fearful, crying out “aren’t you just good country people?” Opening the briefcase that he had been carrying through their escapade, he reveals an assortment of odd objects, including a flask of whiskey, a deck of cards with pornographic pictures, and a prophylactic. Placing her wooden leg in the briefcase, Pointer declares to Hulga, “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way. . . . You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
The story ends with the helpless Hulga watching the serpentine figure of Pointer “struggling over the green speckled lake”; Mrs. Hopewell, watching the same scene with Mrs. Freeman and remarking on the sincerity of the young man, muses “I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.” “Some can’t be that simple,” Mrs. Freeman replies, “I know I never could.”
In “Good Country People,” Mrs. Hopewell’s perennial optimism is balanced by what seems to be her daughter Joy’s self-chosen misery. It is characteristic of Joy’s attitude that she has changed her name to Hulga, evidently because it is the ugliest name she can think of. In that way, her name matches her faded sweatshirt, her scowl, and her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident long before). While her mother is frustrated by her daughter’s bad temper, she is equally frustrated by her daughter’s Ph.D. in philosophy, a degree which makes her unable easily to identify her daughter’s achievement to others. She worries that Hulga never seems to enjoy anything, not even young men.
That makes her concerned when Hulga, an atheist who refuses to let her mother keep a Bible in the parlor, confronts Manley Pointer, a fresh-faced and earnest-seeming Bible salesman who wins Mrs. Hopewell’s trusting heart with his brave stories of childhood hardships and religious devotion. Partly as a joke, Hulga agrees to meet Pointer on a picnic. The falsity of their relationship is marked by the thirty-two-year-old Hulga telling Pointer that she is seventeen, while he calls her both brave and sweet. It has occurred to Hulga that she might be able to seduce Pointer.
At the picnic it becomes clear that Pointer has similar ideas and that, in fact, he is far more cynical than Hulga. His hollow Bible contains playing cards, whiskey, and condoms. He is hardly one of the “good country people” of the title. Perhaps that cynicism is what wins enough of Hulga’s confidence that she lets him see her wooden leg and even remove it from her, although she feels helpless without it. That is when Pointer announces that he collects things such as glass eyes and wooden legs, marks of his own complete nihilism. “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” he exclaims. Hulga is left in the hayloft to think about the real meaning of unbelief.
One of Flannery O’Connor’s most successful and frequently anthologized stories, “Good Country People” was published in her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in 1955. As with many of her works, “Good Country People” addresses themes of good versus evil, the possibility of redemption achieved through an encounter with violence, and the foolishness of intellectual pretensions. The protagonist, Joy, has changed her name to Hulga because that is the ugliest name she could think of. Maimed as a child in a hunting accident, Hulga has a wooden leg—her most valuable possession because it is a mark of her difference. She prizes this because she considers herself more intellectual than all of the “good country people” around her—especially her mother, their neighbors, and finally Manley Pointer, a Bible salesman. Manley steals her leg after seducing her in the loft of a barn, although it is Joy/Hulga who intends to seduce Manley. In losing her leg, she learns about evil, which undermines her previous conviction that “Nothing” is the only meaning in the universe. The story hinges on this powerful irony: in the long run, what Joy loses is her faith but it is a faith in Nothing, which means that she finally gains a knowledge of evil.